Tories grab Morris's bargepole with both hands

THE Scottish Executive has been urged by the Tories to follow the example given by the Education Secretary south of the border.

In a remark fated to rank alongside the "bog standard comprehensive" description ascribed to Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's head of communications, Estelle Morris this week spoke of comprehensives she would "not touch with a bargepole".

Brian Monteith, the Tories' spokesman, lost little time in rushing out a strong endorsement of Ms Morris's espousal of greater diversity through specialist schools.

This was in line with Mr Monteith's clarion call to the party's Scottish conference and he suggested Cathy Jamieson, Scottish Education Minister, "ought to take a leaf out of Estelle Morris's book".

Mr Monteith said: "It is no use talking about diversity without allowing teachers and parents to deliver it. We should be empowering schools by giving them greater authority to choose their curriculum and set their own discipline policy."

New schools should be created to answer local needs, Mr Monteith said, emulating his new country of preference, Denmark, where 25 or more parents can band together and submit a business plan for a school of their own.

Despite the cries of woe from south of the border, however, a TES survey has found major advances by primary schools in the most deprived areas. Poverty-stricken districts in some of the largest cities have registered staggering gains in national test scores for 11-year-olds since 1997, the year Labour came to power.

In a dramatic illustration of how the Executive's key policy of "closing the gap" can be achieved, England's second most deprived council ward, Speke in Liverpool, saw a near doubling of its cumulative score for English, maths and science in the four years to 2001.

The only primary school in the seventh poorest district, in Middlesbrough, achieved a near fourfold improvement.

The TES analysis, which was based on the achievements of 1,000 primary pupils, showed that the overall gap between scores of pupils in the poorest 10 wards and the national average has closed by a third in five years.

The significance of the finding was not lost on Ms Morris. "This shows that the link between social class and attainment really can be broken," she said.

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